Arkansas women's basketball heads to Tulsa for WBIT opener

Arkansas guard Samara Spencer (2) dribbles around a screen set by teammate Emrie Ellis (55) with South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley (12) defending, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, during a game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. (Hank Layton/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas women’s basketball is scheduled to begin its Women’s Basketball Invitation Tournament (WBIT) play at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Tulsa.

The game will stream live on ESPN+. The winner between the Razorbacks (18-14) and Golden Hurricane (23-9) will face the winner of Washington and Georgetown.

What is the WBIT?

The WBIT was created because of the NCAA’s 2021 Gender Equity Report, which suggested the organization should sponsor a secondary tournament for women’s basketball like it does with the men’s National Invitation Tournament.

With the addition of the WBIT, the NCAA now sponsors postseason opportunities for 100 men’s and women’s basketball teams. Sixty-eight teams make up each NCAA Tournament, and the NIT and WBIT each have 32 teams.

The first four teams left out of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament — Miami (Fla.), Villanova, Penn State and Washington State — were sent to the WBIT selection committee and were selected as the four No. 1 seeds.

Miami, the No. 1 seed in Arkansas’ quadrant, notified the NCAA it is unable to participate in the tournament. It was replaced by James Madison as the top seed in the Razorbacks’ quadrant, which also consists of No. 2 seed Washington, No. 3 seed Tulsa and No. 4 seed Illinois.

The Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT), which Arkansas has competed in eight times including last season, dwindled to 48 teams (it had been 64) upon the formation of the WBIT.

“The WNIT is one where the university bids,” Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said. “Like we have to put money into the WNIT's pocket to play in those events, and that's why in the past you've seen some teams turn that down, because it costs to play in that.

“We would have as well. If we didn't make the WBIT, we would not have participated in the WNIT. We're kind of drawing the line [at Arkansas] — it’s that's not that way everywhere — but here we kind of said if we're not in the NCAA sponsored events, we probably will not participate.”

Neighbors said he has been pleased with the WBIT process so far.

“There's not much history because it's brand new,” Neighbors said. “None of us really know what to expect, but so far, so good. It's been very professional. They had a selection mini show. Our kids are excited about it. They get to play in the postseason again, and that means a lot to our kids.

More from WholeHogSports: Neighbors discusses departures of Scott and Poffenbarger, addition of Higginbottom

“The short answer would be they started another tournament to where the men's and women's teams will mirror each other with 68 teams and then 32 teams all sponsored by the NCAA. One-hundred out of 360 [are sponsored by the NCAA], which is still a pretty low percentage comparatively to the other sports, but it's a step in the right direction and a chance for our kids to continue to play.”

Should the Razorbacks advance, they would play either at second-seeded Washington, where Neighbors coached from 2013-17 before coming to Arkansas, or against Georgetown at a location to be determined.

What to know about the Golden Hurricane

Tulsa won the American Athletic Conference with a 13-5 league record and earned the No. 1 seed at the conference tournament, but was upset by East Carolina in the quarterfinals.

It was an upset-filled 14-team American Conference Tournament, which saw East Carolina, a 9-seed, and 10th-seeded Rice meet in the championship. Tulsa was projected to be an NCAA Tournament team for much of the season before it fell in its conference tournament.

The WBIT awards teams like the Golden Hurricane who won their conference’s regular-season crown with an automatic bid if it does not qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

“They had won six in a row, I think, going into their tournament,” Neighbors said. “[They] won their league… they just had one bad day. I mean, this is an NCAA-caliber team that just didn't play good for one day.”

The Golden Hurricane are headlined by the two-headed attack of junior forward Temira Poindexter and guard Delanie Crawford.

Poindexter averages 20.8 points per game, 18th-most in Division I, and was named the American Athletic Conference player of the year. Crawford, who scores 19.3 points per game, was named the league’s most improved player and was on the second team.

Poindexter and Crawford are the only teammates in Division I to average 19 or more points per game.

“They've got two great players in Delanie Crawford and Poindexter,” Neighbors said. “Those two kids, I know from talking to people in their league, I think a lot of people split their vote for player of the year…So, two great players, and they've stayed relatively healthy throughout the year.”

Tulsa coach Angie Nelp is in her third season with the Golden Hurricane. She began her coaching career as a graduate assistant for Arkansas under Tom Collen during the 2007-08 season.

Arkansas and Tulsa last played during the 2022-23 season, when the Razorbacks won 79-70 in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks have a 24-3 advantage in the series, including a 13-1 mark when playing at Tulsa.

One of the Golden Hurricane’s top supporting cast members of Crawford and Poindexter is freshman Mady Cartwright, who played at Neighbors’ alma mater Greenwood High School. Cartwright has startd 27 games and averages 6.9 points and 2.8 rebounds. Her 35.6% three-point percentage is second best on the team among players who have taken at least 50 attempts.

Before the season began, Arkansas and Tulsa played a closed-door scrimmage, which also included TCU, in Fayetteville.

“I'm a big fan of Angie Nelp,” Neighbors said. “She does a great job over there. That's why we played them in a closed-door scrimmage, because I knew we would get better as a result of playing them.

“I know her staff very well. We know a lot of their players. You know, Mady Cartwright's from my hometown — she's from Greenwood. I coached her dad in youth basketball league…I know a lot about their style of play, and they're going to be incredibly hard to beat at home. I think they're 13-1 at home.”

Who is available for Arkansas?

Arkansas will be playing with the same roster it had available for its 67-48 SEC Tournament loss to Auburn on March 7.

Saylor Poffenbarger, who missed that game due to concussion protocol, has since entered the NCAA transfer portal. She led the team and was eighth nationally with 11.2 rebounds. Taliah Scott led Arkansas in scoring with 22.1 points per game but missed the final six games due to what was described as a family emergency, and entered the transfer portal when it opened Monday.

A likely starting lineup for the Razorbacks will consist of guards Makayla Daniels, Samara Spencer and Carly Keats, along with forwards Maryam Dauda and Jenna Lawrence.

“We played a lot of games this year with eight available,” Neighbors said. “We've done it a lot. I thought Jenna played amazing [at the SEC Tournament] stepping right in there and not missing a beat. And I think she's a story that we'll tell all summer long to people about staying ready and getting improvement throughout the year… On a short notice, your number's called and you go down and you play really well in a big environment.

“I thought we played as good as we could. Karley Johnson was coming off a concussion. She'll be back, she'll full speed. Keats [who broke her nose Jan. 28 at Missouri] may be going to get to play maskless, and if not, she's at least a little bit more accustomed to that. Probably this is as healthy as ours roster has been since the Missouri game.”

Of the Razorbacks’ available players, Spencer leads the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game and Daniels adds 11.9. Dauda averages 9.7 points and 6.3 rebounds.